If Not Phil, Then …..

 —  May 14, 2005

I’m not really comfortable with publishing rumors in this blog, even on a juicy topic such as if Phil Jackson is returning or, if not, trying to discern from the outside who or what the obstacle is. I’m not privy to inside information, which is why I’ve focused this blog on the discernable, things you can get from stats and observation. I post — or more accurately, repost — what I think is the best inside information from people I think do it right, but I’m not comfortable just passing along rumors.

Right now the Lakers are at a crossroads — good enough that competitiveness at the least and being a contender at best is within their grasp with some smart steps over a couple of years; but with enough question marks that many more seasons like the one we just saw could easily be fallen into with a one more Rudy T.-like misstep.

That’s why my first report card was on team management — they are the ones that need to set a team direction. That starts with hiring a coach. And, if plan #1 falls through and there is no Phil, then who is next? I think we can safely rule out John Wooden, after that everything else is speculation and I’m unsure where the Laker management will look. What follows is a short list of possibilities, with commentary, intended not as rumors but as food for thought.

Flip Saunders. We know the Lakers have contacted him. So has everyone else with an opening (except Minnesota). Last season he helped Minnesota finally get over the hump and into the Western Conference finals, but this year he got fired because Sprewell and Cassell got older. He has experience with a superstar and building a team around him in Kevin Garnett. The one warning I have about Saunders — in the breakthrough 03-04 season his team was ranked sixth in the league in defensive efficiency, but the years before that they were 16, 15, 15, and 12. I’m not sold on how defensive minded a coach he is.

Larry Brown. Unquestionably a great coach whose teams play defense. Questionable whether he will coach anywhere next year as there appear to be health questions around him. If he does coach, you’re going to have to give up picks to get him out of Detroit, if Brown even wants to get out of Detroit. Not likely to happen.

Eric Musselman. Some team is going to get him, and I think some team will be happy with him. At first glance people will look at his past and say he coached two years in Golden State with just a .457 winning percentage and never reached the playoffs. But the three previous years that team’s winning percentage was .231 and the roster he had was unimpressive. No coach did well there, until they got Barron Davis anyway, but he was the best of the bunch.

Kurt Rambis. He spent years on the bench coaching along side Phil Jackson, is popular with Laker fans, and returned to the bench this season to help bail the team out (a Herculean task). His last stint as coach is not remembered fondly but the team was 24-13 and reached the second round of the playoffs (where they were swept by San Antonio). That Laker team was second in the league in offensive efficiency but 24th on defense.

Tom Izzo/Roy Williams/Jim Calhoun/any college coach. This happens and you’ll be able to find me at Our Lady of the Angels lighting every candle I can find.

Michael Cooper. An easy sell to Laker fans, but in a short stint in Denver this season he didn’t show much. That said, outside of the WNBA titles there’s not much to judge him on.